Tampa Bay co-working spaces rebound as many tire of the home office

TAMPA — Most company offices may be deserted, but Bay 3 Co-Work is buzzing.

Brittany Ward sits at a desk at Bay 3 Co-Work, a multi-use co-working space at Armature Works, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 in Tampa. Despite the pandemic, co-working spaces say they’re recouping most their members and then some.

Co-working spaces like Station House in St. Petersburg, Hyde House in Hyde Park Village and the new Office Evolution Space on Harbour Island are, too. It might not look the same as pre-pandemic days: There are no groups cluttered together, anyone walking about is in a mask, the hand sanitizer is plentiful, and the air smells of Lysol. But in 2020, these co-working spaces might be the closest to the pre-pandemic work life anyone can get.

Space at Bay 3 Co-Work, a multi-use co-working space located at Armature Works, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 in Tampa.

“Everyone says WFH — work from home — but the new reality is different, it’s close, but it’s WFNH — work from near home,” said William Edmundson, the chief operating officer of Office Evolution, which has two franchise co-work locations in Tampa. “Our members and the people signing up with us want to be close to home, they want to be safe, and they want it to be affordable.”

Brittany Ward chooses to work at Bay 3 Co-Work, a multi-use co-working space located at Armature Works, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 in Tampa.

COVID-19 sent thousands across Tampa Bay away from crowded offices and into makeshift work spaces tucked inside dining rooms. But more than six months into the pandemic, co-working spaces across Tampa Bay say they’ve already recouped most of their initial COVID-19 losses. Some say they’re even attracting more members than they were before coronavirus.

Operators say people are showing interest who have never been in a co-working space before, but long for some sense of workplace normalcy. Private offices are especially hot and going fast. The returning members are largely solo entrepreneurs who stopped working from home when they joined a co-working space for a reason.

The WFH life doesn’t work for everyone, Edmundson said. He spoke from experience. His son plays the bass saxophone.

“By early July, I decided it was time to go back,” said Brittany Ward, who runs a marketing and consulting firm. “My clients were starting to reopen, I had new accounts coming on board and my kitchen table was a disaster.”

She was tired of doing Zoom calls from her bedroom and letting herself get distracted by the comforts of home. Before the pandemic, she found she was more productive at Bay 3. She craved that structure back in her work life. She is careful to distance while working, avoids peak office times and always has her mask. She’s not in regular contact with anyone vulnerable to the virus and said the decision to return to co-working is what is best for her business.

“We have had our share of, ‘Why are you open?’, but our lives can’t come to a screeching halt,” said Chuck Glass, the manager of Bay 3. “I understand if you’re not comfortable but we are doing everything possible so that if you come here, you’re not in danger.”

Bay 3 employees sanitize regularly, enforce mask use and provide free surgical masks. Members are allowed to be without face coverings only while working in private spaces or are at least 6 feet away from the next person.

In addition to Bay 3, Ward also works from Station and Hyde House because of a new partnership between the spaces. Lindsey Velde, the regional director of operation for Station and Hyde House, said the shared “Bay House” package gives members the convenience of working around town, but also the option to work at another location if their usual spot feels crowded.

Velde said membership at the two locations she oversees has gone up about 25 percent over the last few months. Glass said things are moving slower at Bay 3, which is attached to the food hall at Armature Works. Still, he says they’re at about 70 percent of their pre-pandemic membership, which is a better recovery than most other industries affected directly by the crisis.

Densely populated cities that rely heavily on public transportation, like New York City, aren’t seeing the same sort of return at their co-working spaces, according Edmundson, whose company has 72 locations nationwide. Yet, his locations in less-populated New Jersey are seeing major membership growth. Unlike bigger cities, Tampa area offices have the benefit of being near ample parking and have first-floor entry, meaning there’s no crowded lobby or elevator for workers to worry about.

Corin Harmon’s post-pandemic work life has changed but she still heads to Hyde House. Despite the heat, the head of Charisma Communications will only work at the space’s outside tables so she has access to open air. She said it’s worth it to get out of the house while staying safe.

“When I’m sitting there, I can hustle through some projects pretty quickly because my mind is focused,” Harmon said. “I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, what’s the dog doing?’ or ‘Oh, let me go grab something from the fridge.”

Tim Livingston, who runs sports technology company ACES Nation, started using local co-working spaces in 2019. After a decade working from home, he said he couldn’t do it anymore.

“I was not able to get up and be motivated every day,” he said.

He needed a destination to work and an environment to feed off others. When COVID-19 hit, he took an eight-week break from the co-working spaces and worked from his brother’s empty mortgage company office. He said staying at home wasn’t a real option, especially once his son had remote college and his wife began teaching virtually.

After his break, he felt comfortable going back to Hyde House, where he rents private conference rooms for small staff meetings. He has gotten used to working in a mask. It almost doesn’t feel different than how working in the space did before, he said. Although, he has noticed new faces: like a pair of sisters attending remote dental school in New York.

The pandemic has changed the co-working population: More parents, students and people with shuttered offices struggling to work from home. But those in the industry say this is just the beginning of a bigger shift.

“A lot of large-scale companies are contacting us about solutions they need that we may be able to offer,” said Velde, the Station House director. “Many companies are coming to a similar conclusion: Fixed office space isn’t 100 percent necessary for their office culture or the productivity of their employees.”

But that doesn’t mean people want to work from home forever, Velde said. The flexibility co-working spaces offer could wind up being the right fit for a lot of companies that may have not considered it before the pandemic.

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